Williams v. Commonwealth

CourtCourt of Appeals of Virginia
Citation71 Va.App. 462,837 S.E.2d 91
Decision Date14 January 2020
Docket NumberRecord No. 0603-18-2
Parties Roy Leeshun WILLIAMS v. COMMONWEALTH of Virginia

Morgan L. Faulkner, Assistant Public Defender, for appellant.

Rosemary V. Bourne, Senior Assistant Attorney General (Mark R. Herring, Attorney General; David M. Uberman, Assistant Attorney General, on brief), for appellee.

Present: Chief Judge Decker, Judges Petty and Huff


Roy Leeshun Williams appeals his convictions for receiving a stolen firearm and possession of marijuana, subsequent offense, in violation of Code §§ 18.2-108.1 and -250.1. He argues that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress. He also contends that the evidence was insufficient to support the firearm conviction. Last, he argues that the trial court erroneously admitted evidence regarding a marijuana field test. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the conviction for receiving a stolen firearm, but we reverse the conviction for possession of marijuana and remand for a new trial on that offense should the Commonwealth be so advised.


On November 19, 2016, around 8:30 p.m., Sergeant Jonathan Nathanson, with the City of Richmond Police Department, conducted a traffic stop of the appellant’s vehicle. He stopped the car after seeing it traveling faster than the posted speed limit and swerving "in and out of the lane."

During the encounter, the sergeant asked the appellant whether he had any firearms in the car. The appellant replied that he had a concealed weapons permit. Sergeant Nathanson asked at least four times where the firearm was located. Each time, the appellant responded vaguely that it was concealed. As they conversed, a large unrestrained dog "rov[ed] the vehicle freely."

The sergeant returned to his police car to write two summonses. It took him approximately sixteen to eighteen minutes to complete them. While he was processing the summonses, he called for assistance, and two other police officers responded to his location. One of the responding officers recognized the appellant from a previous "assault issue" and told Nathanson that the appellant had "some type of firearms violation prior."

Sergeant Nathanson went back to the appellant’s car and asked him to get out of the vehicle. The reason for the request was to avoid the dog in the car and to observe the appellant’s motor skills. After Nathanson repeated the request multiple times, the appellant complied. As soon as he got out of the car, Sergeant Nathanson saw a handgun inside the appellant’s open jacket. The gun was "one of the bigger revolvers [Nathanson had] ever seen."

Immediately, Nathanson placed the appellant in investigative detention. The appellant said that the gun belonged to him. The sergeant seized it for safety purposes.

Within moments of seizing the firearm, Sergeant Nathanson noticed the odor of unburned marijuana coming from the appellant. He asked the appellant whether he had marijuana, and the appellant said that he did not. The sergeant found a small bag of "green leaf like substance" on the appellant’s person that he believed to be marijuana.

Nathanson ran a search in the state firearms database for the gun’s serial number. In the course of doing so, he learned that it had been stolen from an individual’s home on July 8, 2015. When Nathanson informed the appellant that the gun was stolen, the appellant did not seem surprised, yet he said that he did not know that it was stolen. Nathanson asked where he had gotten the gun, and all the appellant would say was that he had bought it from "a person." In addition, when Nathanson told the appellant that he was under arrest, the appellant said that the case "would get lost in court, and that he had been stopped for a stolen firearm before and [had] not [been] arrested at that time."

Nathanson conducted a field test on the leafy material to determine whether it was marijuana. The material tested positive for THC, an ingredient in marijuana. At trial, the appellant objected to the admission of the result of the field test, but the trial court overruled the objection.

Sergeant Nathanson described the circumstances surrounding the stop itself. According to him, the encounter lasted "no longer than what it took ... to get all the documentation together." He additionally stated that "run[ning] the serial number" on the gun took him only a very short time, less than thirty seconds. He explained that the traffic stop may have taken ten minutes longer than normal because he had to "deal with a dog ... [and a] firearm." He estimated that the entire encounter lasted about thirty minutes.

Before trial, the appellant filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the search of his person and the firearm. After hearing argument and testimony, the trial court denied the motion.

The appellant was tried before a jury. After the close of the Commonwealth’s evidence, the appellant made a motion to strike the charge of receiving a stolen firearm. He argued, in pertinent part, that the Commonwealth failed to prove that he knew that the gun was stolen. The trial court denied the motion to strike.

The jury found the appellant guilty of receiving a stolen firearm and possession of marijuana, subsequent offense. He was sentenced to one year of incarceration for the firearm conviction and was fined as a result of the marijuana conviction.


The appellant argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress. He also contends that the evidence was insufficient to prove that he knew that the firearm in his possession was stolen. Finally, the appellant suggests that it was error for the court to admit the result of the marijuana field test into evidence.

A. Motion to Suppress

The law regarding appellate review of a trial court’s decision on a motion to suppress is well settled. The appellant bears the burden of establishing that reversible error occurred. Glenn v. Commonwealth, 275 Va. 123, 130, 654 S.E.2d 910 (2008). At this juncture, the Court considers the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth and affords it the benefit of all inferences fairly deducible from that evidence. Hill v. Commonwealth, 297 Va. 804, 808, 832 S.E.2d 33 (2019). Moreover, our review includes evidence presented at both the suppression hearing and the trial. Id.

This Court is "bound by the trial court’s findings of historical fact unless plainly wrong or without evidence to support them." Matthews v. Commonwealth, 65 Va. App. 334, 341, 778 S.E.2d 122 (2015) (quoting McGee v. Commonwealth, 25 Va. App. 193, 198, 487 S.E.2d 259 (1997) (en banc )). "This standard [also] requires us ‘to give due weight to inferences drawn from those facts by resident judges and local law enforcement officers.’ " Commonwealth v. White, 293 Va. 411, 414, 799 S.E.2d 494 (2017) (quoting Evans v. Commonwealth, 290 Va. 277, 280, 776 S.E.2d 760 (2015) ). The factual findings to which the appellate court must defer include the trial court’s assessment of the credibility of the witnesses. McCary v. Commonwealth, 36 Va. App. 27, 35, 548 S.E.2d 239 (2001). However, the Court reviews de novo the overarching question of whether a search or seizure violated the Fourth Amendment. Glenn, 275 Va. at 130, 654 S.E.2d 910.

The appellant raises three challenges pertaining to his motion to suppress. First, he argues that Nathanson’s seizure of the firearm violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Second, he suggests that the examination of the firearm for its serial number was an unconstitutional search. Third, he contends that the officer unlawfully extended the traffic stop by reading the serial number and consulting a database to determine if the firearm was stolen.3

1. Seizure of Firearm

The appellant suggests that Nathanson violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the seizure of the firearm was not supported by probable cause.

The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. E.g., Sidney v. Commonwealth, 280 Va. 517, 522, 702 S.E.2d 124 (2010). Nonetheless, during a traffic stop, "an officer may need to take certain negligibly burdensome precautions in order to complete his mission safely." Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 356, 135 S.Ct. 1609, 1616, 191 L.Ed.2d 492 (2015) ; see also Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323, 331, 129 S.Ct. 781, 787, 172 L.Ed.2d 694 (2009) ("[T]he risk of a violent encounter in a traffic-stop setting ‘stems not from the ordinary reaction of a motorist stopped ... but from the fact that evidence of a more serious crime might be uncovered during the stop.’ " (quoting Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, 414, 117 S.Ct. 882, 886, 137 L.Ed.2d 41 (1997) )); Kidd v. Commonwealth, 38 Va. App. 433, 444, 565 S.E.2d 337 (2002) (noting that during a lawful detention, an officer "is ‘authorized to take such steps as [are] reasonably necessary to protect [his and others’] personal safety’ " (alterations in original) (quoting Welshman v. Commonwealth, 28 Va. App. 20, 34, 502 S.E.2d 122 (1998) (en banc ))).

"This Court has previously upheld the warrantless seizure of firearms in plain view ... when those firearms posed a potential threat to officer safety." Moore v. Commonwealth, 69 Va. App. 30, 38, 813 S.E.2d 916 (2018). Such a seizure during the course of a traffic stop is permissible under the Fourth Amendment if the officer has a reasonable belief that the weapon poses a danger to police. Taylor v. Commonwealth, 10 Va. App. 260, 265, 391 S.E.2d 592 (1990). "[T]he issue is whether a reasonably prudent [officer] in the circumstances would be warranted in the belief that his safety or that of others was in danger." Id. at 264, 391 S.E.2d 592 (first alteration in original) (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 27, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 1883, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968) ). "Reasonableness is judged from the perspective of a[n objectively] reasonable officer on the scene allowing for the need of split-second decisions...

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